Ilia Galán was born in Spain in 1966. He is a Lecturer in Aesthetics and Theory of Art at Carlos III University at Madrid; he is currently an Academic Visitor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, New York and the Sorbonne. He edits the magazine Conde de Arande. As well as poetry, he writes novels, essays and occasional journalism. His volume of poetry, In the Wilderness of Signs, is published also by the Albion Beatnik Press.
“When this book was published in 2004, the editor of Spain’s newspaper La Razón damned it with declamatory outrage, not for the writing but for the casual political filibuster that accompanied it. The venerable Luis María Anson of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, also a journalist and prominent political figure well known for skulduggery, asked the then Cultural Minister of the Socialist Party what she thought of the latest novel by Ilia Galán. The minister, wishing to strike a nonchalant cultured pose, replied that it did not appear so groundbreaking to her as it was so clearly influenced by Proust. Anson finished the exchange by bidding the minister well: Adieu, Señora minister, adieu, adieu…
Do not be afraid, dear reader, of this literary endeavour – if a reader can ever be found. It can be portrayed as yet another prosaic parody of the experimental that is designed to shock and gain notoriety for its author. However, this is not my purpose. My purpose is didactic: to offer a lesson in aesthetics and, more specifically, art theory. But please note that before you can understand the novel’s content with intent, you will have to have read (and understood) this afterword.
All is a novel, but it may not seem to be. It tells many things and involves many people; in fact it says everything and it omits nothing. Its narrative displays supreme complexity even if its vocabulary is so simple. It is like the world which incorporates that which is said and that which remains unsaid, both the explicit and the implicit.
Anybody who reads the book completely, that is to say anybody who reads every word of it from start to finish, would be strange (if not crazy) and certainly naïve. The book could be read with the inflexions of many different voices, each word could be read with a variety of accent, nuance or musicality, thereby suggesting a variety of interpretation as the text progresses. Readers have the right to see and interpret it as they wish, inventing their own contexts, rather like a pirate ship that plunders treasure randomly from any cargo vessel on the seven seas. But if you seek to be faithful to the book and try to engage with the spirit of its author, the words can only be read as they are presented, that is each and every word in the same way, as it is written, none distinct from the rest. As it has been conceived, and from its outset, each word means exactly the same as the preceding word and the same as that which follows it. Fatigue will set in, of course, and the fact that each repetitive word is placed in a different position on the page may not result in any consistent understanding by the reader; that is if they are capable of maintaining con-centration and do not read mechanically, or succumb to boredom, or daydream, or even fall asleep!
So is this novel, as an avant-garde statement, making fun of the reader? If an apparent or hidden meaning can be discovered within it, then that cannot be the case. Is it a significant work and does it have meaning? Well, yes, it has meaning, but absurdity too: its vocabulary is limited – a device, if you like, that most novelists would not use – and as such it is susceptible to a certain logic, albeit a logic of chaos. This book has a specific number of pages not arrived at by chance: 111, three units that are trinity, unity and plurality at the same time, together and separately, each pitted against each in resolution, as the complex code of its pages unravel. There is mystery in the text, as in that of the Divine, as in the relation that is revealed between the finite and the infinite. Neither is the number of words comprised within it slapdash: 31,113 words. And nor is it an accident that the number of words used is seven.
Above all else, All demonstrates that not everything is good in art. Or, to put it in a more discursive way, if everything is good (as a classicist would say, unum, verum, bonum et pulchrum convertuntur), not every work is as good as another because each depends on its exposition.
Everything that is will have a reason to be. And everything is more good than bad, for if the negative were greater than the positive, everything would cease to be; it would wipe itself out or destroy itself, or become something other. If it is good it has an aspect of beauty, so say mediaeval scholars; therein lies its truth, its compliance, its success. Yet for some mystics and philosophers (such as Eckhart, Scotus Erigena, perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi, Spinoza and Schelling), if the world is Divine and all is God then all is beautiful and all is good; therefore we can only refer to something as ugly or bad by comparing it with something more beautiful (or more good), at least for its observer. And so on and so forth.
This book is, therefore, an antithesis to a common prejudice held in contemporary aesthetics: that nothing matters and that all is relative in any way, that there is no fixed criteria, no measure or metaphysic to deliver the wisdom of Solomon, to compare and thereby to judge. (To judge is to establish nexus or comparison, above all to arrive at a conclusion; it is Solomon’s wisdom cutting the baby in to two halves.)
Not all things can be judged equally. Some things have greater merit than others, are more interesting or more suitable, are more beautiful or more sublime, or have more skill and technique attached to them than others. The singing of a drunk is not the same as Mozart’s Requiem or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, nor can a child’s scribbles be appraised against a painting by, say, C. D. Friedrich.
What most interests me is to analyse the limits of art, limits that go further than the merely the subjective2 (the aesthetic environment that is imposed upon us since Kant) and which demonstrate our mental variables – genetics, environment, society or culture, for example. If we discard the extremes of our experience, we could come closer perhaps to the median point, to discover that which touches our heart and moves us, leaves a good impression, or pleases us. This is what we would call aesthetic taste (although not with precision, for clear and distinct truth is but beautiful chimera invented by Descartes and Plato; not even the constructs of logic or the mathematics that underlie our lives and thinking are precise). Very few people would revere a nine hour-long symphony, even its obvious qualitiy notwithstanding. Similarly one cannot hear a concert of ultrasounds (what would bats make of that?), or appreciate a canvas painted in infrareds, or read a poem of a million stanza. There are times when an artistic statement is inappropriate – mocking death and the dead when someone has just lost a parent – or it simply does not work because of its interminable nature – its excess or its minimalism.
In the twentieth century it seemed to be necessary to search for new paths in art, to break from established form and to fight against the heavy weight of hierarchy and history. The violence of the Futurists and the irrationality of the Dadaists were expressions of this, (they were only latter day equivalents of Sturm und Drang, which shocked its audience before Romanticism quelled it). In the twenty-first century artists can take advantage of previous investigation and discovery. There are no rules and no prescribed modus operandi that need hold sway, and no pretence need be made that stability or structure are necessary any more.
This book is, in addition to being a philosophical treatise, is, in its systematic way (the system is its non-system, and its reason is the absurd), a work of art. For this reason it is called a novel. If analysed with conventional cri-teria it would be judged as bad. Some would even judge that it narrates nothing and that it contradicts its title (All), that it is certainly not a novel, or even literature or philosophy. It could even be that some would deny that it is comprised of letters, words, paragraphs and pages. I would never claim it should be read before Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky or Rilke; any number of reasons, rational and irrational, would afford these authors supremacy.
I cannot boast that I hope that this novel will be read in its entirity; I do not expect this and do not even desire it of anyone (well, almost so, other than as an experiment to see how many pages one is capable of withstanding…) Moreover I confess that I have not read what I have written, not even most of it. In writing it I used a keyboard, I copied and pasted with my electronic pen. It was written in approx-imately an hour and a half; it was later edited, that is it was meditated upon.
The closest is perhaps the psychopath writer in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaption of Stephen King’s The Shining, who dedicates days of his life to writing a novel. The novel is composed continuously with one phrase: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. This is a cinematic device to show the symptoms of an unhealthy mind in which meaning has been lost. This is not the case here. I have set out to attain the apogee of artistic expression: it might be an original work or it might not (either is of little consequence); experts in the filed are unable to advise me of this. There have been so many avant-garde texts that to compile a bibliography of them would be impossible. But actually I know of no writing similar to this; it is unique. It is, of course, a ridiculous trifle, words ordered by mathematical formulae. There are countless numbers of books published, so many of them disregarded, most of them will barely attract an audience; so many more unpublished books are in draft and manuscript, hidden in cupboards, works that will never have a chance to fail. But I would prefer to choose any of them to read before I would choose my novel; I would prefer to read any plagiarism, copycat book or palimpsest.
This text is like a temple. It begins and ends with a salutation to the Divine. Grüss Gott, in the German of the Austrians, can be translated simply as ‘hello’; it signifies also a Salutation to God. Hola is ‘hello’ in Spanish; it is a courtesy to commence the world. But God never finishes, his farewell is eternal, and in Spanish it is a salutation: a Dios, or ‘God be with you’. Adiós, translated as ‘goodbye’ in English, means literally ‘God as all’, a pseudo-pantheistic vision that is transcendent. It would require a book with an infinite number of pages to express the inexpressible, which by definition is impossible; any definition by its very nature is impossible since words can never represent things completely. Our understanding is unable to capture reality in its essence.
It begins as it ends; the start is in the ending.
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
– T. S. Eliot [Burnt Norton, 1936, Faber]
So then, definitively, farewell.”
– from Ilia Galán’s AFTERWORD